The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy


Werner Rammert

Relations that constitute technology and media that make differences

Toward a social pragmatic theory of technicisation

Contributed paper to the Academic Session

“Advances in the Philosophy of Technology”

Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences”

Karlsruhe, 22.5.1997


1. What is technology? A change of views

Technology is usually defined as tools made by man, as efficient means to an end, or as an ensemble of material artifacts.  But technology also encompasses instrumental practices, like the creation, fabrication and the use of means and machines; it includes the whole ensemble of material and non-material techno-facts; it is closely connected with institutionalized needs and ends-in-view that technologies serve to. [1]  When authors include a wide range of aspects in their view on technology, they think along the lines of an old and well-established tradition.  Since the times of Aristotle, four elements are discerned which constitute technology: the first element is the stuff or material, out of which a techno-fact is made; the second element is the form or shape, that is given to it; the third element is the end or use, for which it is determined; the fourth element is the efficient action, done by the tool-using man. [2]

Conceptions of technology differ in the way they accentuate one particular element.  Authors who emphasize materiality turn technology to a separate ontological sphere of physical artifacts and the realm of “hard ware” devices.  Authors who stress the instrumental shape tend to reduce it to a mere function in a fixed means-end relation.  Those who underline the finality have to cope with problems of technological ambivalence and interpretative flexibility.  Those who give prominence to man the tool-maker underrate the role of material “agency” or “resistancies” in the subject-object relation.  Every philosopher of technology who follows this strategy of sharpening gets more and more accused of being ontological, functionalist, teleological, or anthropomorphic.  How should a theory of technology be constructed that avoids the fallacies of essentialism and constructivism, of objectivism and subjectivism?  I shall argue for a relational and pragmatic strategy which centers around the processes of technicisation and the practices to institutionalize differences by inscribing particular forms into special media.

It would produce an endless debate to dig deeper into the meaning of technology.  I think it is a more sensible approach to look for how the concept of technology was used in the history of thinking. [3]  Under my rough genealogical view a hidden agenda can be singled out.  Technology has always been defined in difference to something, at first in difference to nature and life, then in difference to culture, and actually in difference to society.  In each case one assumed different ontological spheres or substantial qualities.  These assumptions became confronted with more and more problems like any ontological or substantial thinking.  But even if one uses these differences as merely analytical ones, they seem to be unsuited to catch the character of contemporary technologies and the emergence of techno-structures in society. [4]  The first line of my argumentation begins with an exemplary critique of making substantial differences and ends in the request for a relational approach to technology (part 2).

What kind of relation constitutes technology?  Usually the instrumental relation between means and ends is stressed in the mainstream of the philosophy of technology.  A more specific version relates puzzles and problems with methods of problem-solving.  These conceptions presuppose that there exists a pre-fixed order of relations or that the relations are unambiguously discernible.  But the contingency and the complexity of modern technology does not any longer allow to uphold these assumptions.  That is why some side streams in the philosophy of technology are reconstructed that prefer a process view of technology and that give more place to the fact that technologies are continuously constructed and have always to be enacted in concrete constellations.  In the second line of my argumentation I shall prepare the ground for a turn to the procedural view of technicisation and to pragmatic technology (part 3).

What makes differences between the technologies?  At first, the form how the relations are conceptualized make a difference.  If you imitate the style of human symbol manipulation, you will build the knowledge machines of classical Artificial Intelligence; if you follow the strategy how brains are working, you will design the parallel computing programs of connectionism; if you imagine social interactions and a society of minds, you will construct the multi-agent systems of Distributed Artificial Intelligence.  Secondly, the particular technology project or how technological models are constructed and developed make a difference.  For instance, computer systems differ under the aspect that engineers or programmers prefer some techniques or traditions of design.  Thirdly, the user cultures or how computing is really practiced make a difference.  Hacking, painting, tinkering, calculating or communicating with the machine, each style of domesticating or cultivating the computer reshapes the technology by experimental practice. [5]

But beyond these types of shaping technology there are different “stuffs” where technology is made of.  That means no return to the substantiality in the ontological sense.  Stuff is analyzed with respect to its mediating function in relation to different practices.  Technologies are considered as particular forms of practical control over input-output relations which are inscribed in the media of human activities, physical artifacts and symbolic signs.  We can learn from a very general theory of media [6] that media - or how their elements are coupled - make a difference, too.  In my last part, I shall plead for a media turn in the theory of technology, that means particularly to substitute the form-media relation for the means-end relation (part 4).


2. The technological difference: from substance to function

The history of thinking about technology can be seen as the continuous drive to define technology in contrast to another substance.  The substances, that one addressed to, changed, but the direction of thought remained always the same.  Let me briefly remind you of some relevant steps of setting the technological difference.

The difference between nature and technology seems to have the longest tradition.  Since Greek times technology was separated from nature under the aspect that technology needs human competent intervention to come into existence, whereas nature organizes itself spontaneously.  By this way, an artificial world of artifacts became divided from the earthly realm of nature. [7]  But the more we realize that our view of nature is also constituted by experimental intervention and with the help of artifacts, the more the defining difference is disappearing.  The more we define the earth by the earthly limits of growth, the more we get conscious of the constructed nature of our image of nature.  We fall into the circularity of a substantial definition.

The difference between life and technology belongs to the same strategy to define the technological difference.  In this case the vibration and spontaneity of a living organism is compared to the crystallized body and completely regulated rhythm of a dead mechanism. [8]  But the difference between organic life and mechanical technology is diminishing.  In biotechnology, organic life is now fabricated: The genetically engineered laboratory mouse is both at the same time, a kind of spontaneous organic life and a controlled techno-structure that can be patented.  In the computer sciences, mechanical models of knowledge engineering are followed up by various approaches to create “Artificial Life” and to cultivate an evolutionary selection between a variety of growing programs.  Machines and programs are moving beyond the purely mechanistic field.

Physical materiality or mechanical artificiality may be significant markers of technological objects.  But they are not sufficient to encompass contemporary technology and to define its core characteristics.

A second line of distinction has been drawn between culture and technology.  This culture/technology difference shows many faces.  The creative realm of culture has been opposed to the accumulative realm of civilization, especially in the German tradition of Idealist Philosophy. [9]  The meaningful sphere of language has been contrasted to the literal and formal spheres of logic and mathematics.  But the late Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) taught us that even the most rigorous symbolic technique, like mathematical logic, is established upon language games.  Ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts have demonstrated that even small talk follows formal and technical rules of conversation. [10]  A clear demarcation line between a cultural world of sense-making and a technological world of blind rule-following cannot any longer be maintained.

The materiality of signs and the formality of rules enrich the concept of classical technology that focused on material tools, machines and mechanisms.

The difference between society and technology opens up a further line of discussion.  Technological efficiency is often contrasted to the inefficiency of social institutions.  The one-best way of a neutral technological rationality is often confronted with the chaotic pluralism of a value-laden sociality.  These distinctions are pushed forward by the movements of “technocrats” and are stabilized by their critics. [11]  If we talk for instance of a technical solution of a problem, a non-social and non-political way to handle things is addressed.  A line of difference is drawn between the social world and the technological order.  The social way of doing something means to recognize the double contingency of interaction between subjects, it requires communication, and it admits negotiation.  The technical mode of making something is associated with the simple regularity of operations between objects, with programmable control and with reliable performance.  In a certain way, the analytical differences between technique and praxis, work and interaction, system and life-world reproduce this division of the technological order from the social world.[12]

But society cannot be grasped without its technical mediation.  The technologies of production constitute the range of economic and political opportunities of societies.  The technical media of communication constitute the spatial expansion of communities and the temporal intensity of social life. [13]  They are not means from outside society, but integral parts of human association.  Even social interaction, communication and negotiation are today intensely mediated by techniques and technologies.  One cannot imagine a mere political solution or social decision that is not mediated by data-processing, telephone calls, written documents and bargaining techniques.  Inversely, technology can be seen as “society made durable” (Latour 1991).  Social concepts and practices are consciously and non-consciously incorporated in the machine and inscribed in the programs.  Society, too, is not outside technology, but society is within the machines.  A substantial difference between technology and society cannot be upheld.

Material durability and reliability of performance are not limited to technology; but they enlighten the very function it is constructed for.

After we have finished this quick detour through technology’s history of semantic differentiation, we can draw some conclusions.  If technology can be defined sufficiently neither by its artificial status nor by its materiality, neither by its mechanical feature nor by its non-social character as neutral means, then all substantial differences can be deconstructed and one should give up this strategy of definition.  If technology can be observed in each of the above mentioned worlds, then we should look for a particular function that technology performs across the substantial differences.  If we cannot presuppose a world of clear-cut ontological spheres, we are forced to construct relational concepts that have to be tested.  The search for a useful relational concept of technology should start with a short review of some philosophies which emphasized the relational form, the process and the performance of technology.


3. Technicisation and technical practice: Relations that constitute technology

If we mark the materiality, the artificiality and the instrumentality of technology, we have not grasped the very idea of technology.  Technology doesn’t exist only as material ensemble, as man-made artifacts, and as means-end-relation.  It is a particular relation to the world that constitutes technology.  What kind of may this relation be?

Ernst Cassirer has proposed to look at the process of becoming, the “forma formans” of technique, not only at the structure of being, the “forma formata”, of the technological ensemble (<1930> 1985: 43).  He discovered a relationship between the function of language and the function of technology: Both serve to take hold of reality by constructing it.  Language constructs the communicative reality by means of theoretical thinking; technology constructs the material reality by means of effecting.  In magical techniques both forms of meaningful practice were still intertwined.  It is the particular idea of causal relations and necessary coupling that makes differ modern technologies from magical techniques as well as from aesthetic artifacts.  From this time on, the process of technology-making included the instrumental abstraction from other meanings and connotations, the objectification of the world and the encapsulation of intended effects from non-intended ones in a black box.

In his late work about “The Crisis of European Sciences” Edmund Husserl developed a strongly critical attitude towards modern science and technology.  He diagnosed a great divide between a physicalist objectivism and a transcendental subjectivism.  In reconstructing modern mathematics and the technical use of formula in the sciences he comes to the conclusion that the process that he calls “Technisierung” (<1936> 1982 :49 pp.) is the central cause for the divide and the consequent crises of modernity.  I translate this term with “technicisation”.  Technicisation is connoted with the narrowing of experience by abstraction from other meanings, simplifying moves to methods instead of deep sense-making, and following empty rules instead of full understanding.  This pathological form of technicisation turns reality into a resource for possible worlds.  According to the late Husserl, the form of technicisation achieves an increase of efficiency at the prize of a loss of meaningfulness.  In his sympathetic critique Hans Blumenberg reminds us of the necessary ambivalence of technicisation: there could be no creation of new worlds without the risk of alienation from the life-world.  He blames Husserl, because he doesn’t see the paradox that even phenomenology as a method of thinking is itself a part of the technicisation.  Like the modern sciences it raises the consciousness of the contingency of the world (Blumenberg <1963> 1981: 47).

At this point of argumentation we can define technicisation as a schematic relation between causes and effects, that operates independently from the communication of meaning.  The schematized elements can be coupled and combined to complex technical systems.  A mathematical engine or algorithm consists of some counting formula and formal instructions, so that even complex problems can be computed without knowing the context; a mechanical machine connects a couple of tools and it prints my text precisely without reflecting on its moral implications; a drilled sharpshooter combines some perceptual and bodily techniques, so that he may perhaps kill a person on command without weighing up the pros and cons.  The difference between an algorithm, a machine and a human being doesn’t matter on this level.  It will be the subject of the last part, when I shall talk about the media that make differences.  What matters here, that is the difference between the technicised and the non-technicised relation.  In my view it is a gradual difference, not a substantial one.  Technicisation means more reliability, tighter coupling of elements, less dependency on contexts, and more efficiency of control.  Techniques to attain technicised relations are the simplification and specification of complex causal relationships by separating, purifying and schematizing the elements, the fixing of the relations by repetition in time or incorporation in matter, and the closure of a system by encapsulation and “black boxing”.

Can we say something more about the relation that constitutes technology?  Perhaps we can take over some ideas from the American philosopher of technology Don Ihde, who read Martin Heidegger as a scholar of phenomenology and under the influence of pragmatism (Ihde 1979; 1983).  In his book “Technology and the Lifeworld” (1990) he focuses on human-technology-relations and the cultural embeddedness of technologies.  Following a relativistic ontology he draws a distinction between the “direct bodily and perceptual experiences of others and the immediate environment” and the “technologically mediated experiences” (Ihde 1990: 15 pp.) . And he suggests - as I proposed above - to look for different degrees of mediation in our technologically textured world.

The position to conceive technology as instruments to transform something can be blamed for a Cartesian and subjectivist bias: It is supposed that a self or a subject can use a thing as an instrument to effect something in the outer world.  But is it reasonable to speak of a subject, if the technological instruments change the status of subjectivity?  Who is the subject in an atomic plant?  The clear-cut limits between subject and object become disturbed.  Technics is a symbiosis of artifact and user within a human action.” (Ihde 1990: 73)  The material relation between the humans and the world should be conceived as a symbiotic and mediated relation instead of a divided and instrumental one.

An objectivist bias emerges, if the means-end relation is criticized because of its perversion.  Supporters of the technocratic position as well as critics of our civilization - from the left and the right - tend to stress the strength of the technological imperative.  They both point to the means that become an end in themselves.  The first ones welcome this technological preference as a means to rationalize capitalist economy and society (see e.g. Taylor 1947; Veblen 1954).  The critics of culture complain the totality of technological order, alienation or even the disappearance of the human project (see e.g. Ellul 1964).  But is it reasonable to think of technics being completely out of control? [14]  It is the same divide between subject and object, that leads to such an objectivistic and deterministic view.  I propose to take serious these observations of technology’s alterity, but to transform them into “alterity relations”[15] with different intensities and grades of agency.  Following a mediation view, agency can be seen as distributed between humans and non-humans. [16]  Agency is not reserved to human subjects; but humans are the only agents who can experience and reflect this relation.  They cannot reflect the relations from outside with a satellite view, but they must do it amidst them, with a navigational view.

A third fallacy concerns the hermeneutic relations.  In this case, the fallacies of functionalism and of intentionalism have to be avoided.  A follower of functionalism sees no difficulties to detect the meaning of a technology.  One could say: Function constitutes technological form, or with the word of the Bauhaus philosophy: Form follows function.  An intentionalist thinker would search for the particular aims a technological artifact was designed for.  But it is rather difficult if not impossible either to reduce an artifact to one general function or to interpret an artifact’s particular meaning.  Should we look for the inventor’s vision or should we review the engineering and marketing plans of the producer or should we observe and ask the users of technology?  Daniel Dennett (1989) - reflecting on the interpretation of texts, people and other artifacts - destroys any hope to find a definitive and final interpretation of a technology’s function.  We have to look with him for a pragmatic solution of these problems.

John Dewey has developed a philosophy of praxis, that denies such things as functions and intentions and that rejects the rigid subject-object divide. [17]  Technology and its use cannot be divided from one another.  Technology is defined as an “active productive skill” (Hickman 1990: 18).  It encompasses all means which are used in the concrete process of experience to control changes that interfere between the beginning and the end of a process.  Technology has no existence and function outside of its use.  It is what I would like to call the use-relations that create the handled object as a tool and the manipulating gesture as technical practice. [18]  A technical object differs from another non-technical object insofar as technology includes a pre-structured interrelation between objects and operations as a self-defining feature.  Technology is this relation, which I would like to call “interobjectivity”.  This interrelationship is revealed in the technical practice and its use-relations.  It is based neither on the properties of the related things nor on the intention of the active humans alone.  Neither the relation of the upcurrent and the shape of wings nor the volition to turn them into tools of flying constitute the technology of the airplane.  The art of flying comes up only in the interplay of active productive experiences, like inquiry, tinkering and experimenting, and the relations between the objects that are thereby produced as schemata of design, preferred combinations of materials and rules of piloting.

Andrew Pickering has found a metaphor to describe this process: “the mangle of praxis” (1995).  With this metaphor he points out that the objects and their respective relations are changed by the inquiring practice.  But also the intentions of the human experimenter is dissolved into a sequence of step by step accommodated intentions, when they come into contact with the resistance of the objects and the structure of their relations.  This pragmatic conception differs from the materialistic notion that the objective physical properties or the laws of nature limit the technological projects and the range of technological possibilities.  The experience of limitation is dependent on the particular interrelation between objects and on the specific intention they are approached with.  Experiments do not fail and technologies do not function because some objective material conditions are missed or offended.  Functioning technologies have to be actively produced in inquiring different constellations between objects and adapting the technological intentions.  The knowledge of the right formula, of the effective functional organization and of the physical properties is not sufficient to build a technology.  Practical experience is needed.  In his study on the reconstruction of experimental Laser devices Harry M. Collins (1992) has demonstrated that both, embodied experience and its enactment by at least one member of the original team, were necessary to reconstruct the device at other places with success.  To attain the objectified build of a functioning technology finally, you need more than the plans for its construction and more than the mixture of materials.  You need the experience how to tune the relations between the objects and the projects, and you need the experience what is possible and what can be actualized in which way and with which effect.  Like in a “dance of agency” (Pickering 1995: 21) efficient relations of interobjectivity come up.  Later on they become fixed in formula and interpreted by a simplified schema of cause and effects.

New technologies are constituted by a further type of relations which I call “evaluative relations”.  Technologies are from the beginning on related to other technologies, e.g. relations of competition with new ones and relations of compatibility with established ones.  They are not the singular incorporation of one idea out of an indefinite realm of technical ideas what is often supposed by philosophies of invention (see Dessauer 1956).  They are neither related to one another by a functional logic of organ substitution which governs the successive substitution of one function of the human circle of activities (“Handlungskreis”) by the next one, starting with the energetic function of muscles and ending with the steering function of the brain.  That is the way how anthropological theories of technology like to conceive the relation (see Kapp <1877> 1978; Gehlen <1957> 1980).  Nor can the technologies be unambiguously positioned in a ranking order that concerns the technological or economic efficiency.  This is a practice that is preferred by historical, economical and social theories of technical change. [19]

Technological innovations cannot simply be explained by rational economic choices or by criteria of higher technological efficiency.  They are characterized by a relation of “creative destruction” as Joseph Schumpeter coined it (1942).  Universal and substantial criteria of technological superiority can definitely not be indicated.  The multitude and mixture of criteria don’t provide a sound basis for the evaluation.  The heterogeneous and historical character of criteria sets don’t admit a neutral and universal procedure.  That is why I propose another relational concept that may handle the difference between established, highly evaluated technologies and profane, non-evaluated technologies.  It is the concept of the “technological archive”.

Boris Groys has transferred the concept of the “archive” from Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida to describe the mechanism of innovation in the fine arts and later on in the useful arts of technology. [20]  It can be doubted that there exists either any conclusive argumentation to decide on the aesthetic superiority of a piece of art or any universal and rational procedure to determine the functional superiority of a piece of technology.  The existence of any substantial criteria is called into question.  It can be named a paradox of innovation to refer to the established rules of the game and at the same time to break them and to elevate the before lowly rated features to the now highly evaluated criteria. [21]  In the arts, the collection or the museum are considered as a mechanism to handle with this paradox.  In the beginning the African art of mask-making and the thereby inspired practice of cubist painting invented by Pablo Picasso and Fernand Braques was labeled primitive.  But later on, when after a time of fermentation these pieces of art were acquired by art collectors and museums, they became the highly evaluated masterpieces of cubism and modern art.  The mechanism of the archive turns primitive and profane practices and even the practice of anti-art into art which is socially accepted and highly rated.  It is just this mechanism of the archive that constitutes a formal exchange relation between the profane sphere and the chosen realm of artifacts.  Even in times of post-modernity with its loss of certainty and universally shared values this mechanism guarantees the continuity of innovation, but not a substantial progress.

This relational approach can be transferred to technological innovation.  Following John Dewey’s pragmatic technology conception one can observe a huge mass of profane technical practices which are only locally significant and passing quickly.  But these practices are elevated into the status of socially acknowledged and highly evaluated technology, when they get exhibited on inventors’ and industrial fairs, when they receive recognition by the publication and in the education of the engineering sciences, when they get patented with success, and when their products are diffusing via mass production.  I subsume all those technical practices and their products under the “technological archive” that are officially included in the “state-of-the-art” in a technological field. [22]  This can happen via publication, collection, codification and other practices of institutionalization.  Legitimate technologies are divided from illegitimate ones, safe technologies from unsafe ones, efficient technologies from inefficient ones.  Technologies in societies are also constituted by these evaluative relations.

To summon up the considerations of this part: the view on technology is changed from a substantial to a relational perspective.  In a first step, I changed the emphasis - with the help of Ernst Cassirer - from the material ensemble of artifacts to the process of technicisation.  In a second step, I corrected Edmund Husserl’s critical view of disembedded technicisation with Hans Blumenberg and pleaded for an ambivalent and gradual concept that makes differences between the more and the less technicised relations.  In a third step, I redefined the subjectivist view of instrumentality and the objectivist view of the perverted means-end relation - inspired by Don Ihde’s pragmato-phenomenological interpretation of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of technology: the subject-object divide was substituted for a symbiotic and mediational view.  In a fourth step, John Dewey’s pragmatism helped to reject the merely functional and the merely intentional interpretation of technology.  Practical relations constitute the meaning of a technology; neither technological options nor technological visions can do this.  At the end, I argued that all approaches failed which used substantial criteria to evaluate technologies in comparison with one another.  I took over the concept of the archive - developed by Michel Foucault and described as a formal mechanism by Boris Groys - to demonstrate how one technical practice is institutionalized compared with another one.  It is just the inclusion of a profane technical practice in the highly evaluated collection of the state-of-the-art that turns it into a relevant and legitimate technology in society.

I have identified three types of relations that constitute a technology: the causal, the hermeneutic, and the evaluative relations.  The causal relations consist of agents and objects that are “mangled” to tightly coupled effective systems.  The hermeneutic relations emerge with the use and they determine the very meaning of a technology by the way how it is really practiced and not how it was originally projected.  The evaluative relations connect different technical practices and artifacts with one another and regulate how they get included in the social collection of legitimate technologies and how this techno-structure gains influence.  Altogether these relations constitute the particular form of technicisation that is practiced and institutionalized in social life.

Up to now I didn’t answer the question what are these relations made of.  Usually, one conceives technology as “hard ware” made of physical objects.  I kept this question open intentionally.  I didn’t want to narrow the wide and process concept of technology to early.  After the constituting relations have been presented, I can finally turn to the questions what stuff technology is made of and what are the differences.


4. The difference of media: the stuff technology is made of

I characterized technology as a certain form of practice.  Then it is obvious that stuff is needed that can be formed.  Even in the frame of the instrumental view of technology it is important, whether an instrument is made of wood, iron or plastics.  We can learn from media theory (see Heider 1926 and McLuhan 1968) that the stuff should have two particular features.  It must be permeable and malleable, so that it can be shaped easily.  It must be hard and durable, so that the shape is clearly discernible and constantly repeatable at any time and at any place.  It is the stuffs’ capacity to function as mediator in the technical process, not their trivial material differences that I want to address to.  A medium can very generally be characterized as a stuff that smoothly lends its material characteristics to be shaped and that minimizes its resistance on the one side, and that gives the shapes its distinctive and visible expression and that does not disturb it by its own features.  The fine-grained sand easily allows to build walls or to inscribe signs, but these artifacts show no hardness and durability.  Therefore sand is a bad mediator for constructing buildings in comparison to cement or for inscribing signs in comparison to wax and paper or even the electronic display of my computer.

The category of media is used here very broadly.  It is not restricted to the media of communication.  If a stuff is so fine-grained and loosely-coupled, that it disappears in the background of our experience, and if the stuff makes possible to build tightly-coupled relations between elements, like stones or signs, then we speak of a medium.  To be a medium is not a substantial feature, but it depends on the context of use, whether a stuff takes over a mediating function.  We can now precisely ask for the differences that media make in our context of technical practice and technicisation.  Following a broad stream of thinking, [23] I will relate to three types of stuff:

firstly, human bodies, including action and perception, usually seen as the stuff the interactive or social world is made of;

secondly, physical things, including physical and biological stuff, elements and processes that constitute the interobjective or natural world;

thirdly, symbolic signs, including letters, numbers and icons, the stuff the intersubjective or cultural world is constructed of.

My view deviates from the mainstream of theoretical approaches under two aspects.  It includes techniques of action and techniques of perception.  I cannot only count on the wide conception of technology in pragmatism and phenomenology.  My view can be also based on research in anthropology which observed a strong interdependency between action, bodies and technology (see Mauss 1936).  Additionally, my concept integrates the symbolic technologies from the first cave paintings up to the last version of virtual reality in cyberspace.  In this case too, I can refer to witnesses who stressed the co-evolution of hand and word (see Leroi-Gourhan 1980) and emphasized the equal importance of mechanical and media revolutions (see Innis 1951; McLuhan 1968; Luhmann 1989).

Technology emerges only, if three conditions are fulfilled.  A use relation has to be found or created between a bodily experience and an outer environment that is mediated by something.  A relation of interobjectivity has to be established between two elements that assures an expectable and tightly-coupled output from an input.  There must be a memory or an archive that marks and fixes the evaluated relations in a way that it can be repeated often and reproduced in any context.  Human bodies, physical matter, and symbolic signs are all together required to constitute technology.  A machine without someone, who controls it, is no machine, but an exhibit in a museum or junk in the scrap-yard.  A technique to crash nuts with a stone or a technique to use plants to heel wounds which is not marked and made durable by an instrument or by a significant formula, gets lost and remains an incident in animal or primitive life (see Strum/Latour 1987).  But I shall treat the three types of stuff separately in order to inquire their particular mediating functions.

Human bodies can be used as media to inscribe a technical form, when they can be managed to behave in a fixed and repetitious manner according to an effective schema.  Movements can be schematized and drilled.  Sensations can be coded and ritualized.  The finer the unit acts can be grained and the stronger they can be coupled, the more they get technicised.  Military drill, Tayloristic methods to simplify work movements, and routines of machine operation can be counted among this type of technology of action.  They are based on repetition and training the body in order to delete consciousness.  But the acting bodies loose their mediating function, if consciousness arises.  Now we can better see the ambivalence of technologies that are made of human bodies: They are imperfect technologies, because human actions cannot be fixed and coupled with the same reliability as physical things; but they are at the same time highly flexible, if situations are changing and problems come up.  This type of technicisation that uses the medium of human action may be called “habitualization”. [24]

Physical things and processes are the most successful stuff to serve as a medium to make technical forms durable and transferable.  Fine-cut work routines and communication functions can be mimicked by mechanical operation.  New effects of interobjectual relations can be discovered and isolated.  These techno-facts build the huge stock of the technological archive.  They can be combined and assembled to build large and more complex technological systems, e.g. a machinery system of car-production is composed of power, work, transport and controlling machines or the network of electrical power supply consists of turbines, dynamos, transformers, and cables.  These material technologies range from simple tools to assembled machines, from closed technical systems to open technological networks. [25]  This hardware type of technology is predominant in the theoretical discussion, because it is so obviously present as a resource and as a constraint of action.  Physical materiality means a gain in durability and calculable substitutability - think of the thousands of compatible parts a car is made of -, but a loss in flexibility and reversibility - think of the difficulty to change the production line or even the whole trajectory of cars with internal combustion engines.  This type of technicisation that uses the medium of physical operations and processes may be called “mechanization”.

Signs are a special stuff.  They constitute a third realm between the two other worlds. [26]  Materiality and human practice are required, when signs come into existence.  But sign systems, like the alphabet or the arithmetic, can be completely separated from the behavioral and physical contexts from which they emerged.  They can be precisely manipulated by following procedural rules.  Calculation techniques, chemical formulas, and computer programs belong to this category of symbolic or software type of technologies.  The formal character of algorithms enables us to transform sign and rule systems into “trivial machines”.  In combination with a computer they open the door to the simulation of any given technology. [27]  To use signs as a medium of technicisation, that means the highest precision of coupling and no wear and tear in comparison to physical machines.  But it calls also for great efforts to make inputs and outputs compatible with the environment.  This type of technicisation that uses the medium of signs may be called “algorithmization”. [28]


5. Features and preferences of a social pragmatic concept of technology

What is the use of this pragmatic and mediational concept of technology?  Generally, we can observe more differences between technologies, we can construct a more detailed analytical tool-box, and especially we get a fresh view on the difference that constitutes technology.  At the close of my contribution I summarize my considerations with regard to some advantages.

At first, I developed technology as a particular form that makes a difference.  The technological form schematizes, couples and fixes objects, symbols, and agents in a manner that a useful effect can be repeatedly expected and intentionally controlled.  Technology isn’t any longer defined along the essential distinctions from nature, culture or society.  The technological form is defined across these line of distinction.  It distinguishes the technicised form from the non-technicised one.  It makes a distinction between the tightly-coupled form and the loosely-coupled one.  It stresses the difference between the mediated experience and the direct one.  This gradual concept of technicisation is more suitable to empirical studies than other ones.  It especially allows to analyze the processes of becoming a technology or of losing the character of a technology.  One can use it to identify different degrees of technicisation and their social implications.

Secondly, I spelled out three relations that constitute technology: the use-relations, the causal relations between objects, and the evaluative relations of the archive.  The use-relations define the technology’s meaning, independently from the inventor’s vision or the producer’s design.  This pragmatic concept helps us to avoid false generalizations from modern or western types of technologies.  It’s always technology-in-use and technology-in-situation that we experience.  The causal relations or the fixed relations between input and expected output concern the interrelations of objects, that I called interobjectivity.  This relation limits an idealist notion or even the notion of radical constructivism, that “anything goes” or that technology can be socially shaped entirely.  But it also qualifies the notion of material causes, taking materiality as timely emergent resistance against certain practices of human intervention.  The evaluative relations of the technological archive are the mechanism to establish the state-of-the-art within the technological fields.  They allow us to explain technological innovation without supposing some substantial quality or any neutral efficiency criteria.  This relational and pragmatic concept of technology allows us to capture the contingency and ambivalence of technologies without extinguishing them with rigor.  For this concept is sensitive to different cultural practices and local situations.

Beyond the form how technology is schematized and beyond the relations that define technology, I identified a difference of media.  It makes a difference, whether human bodies or physical matter or symbolic signs are the media that the forms are shaped of or inscribed in.  This media-form relation seems to open up more opportunities to analyze the new information technologies and the biotechnology than the traditional means-end concept.  With its help the classical machine concept of transformation and the cybernetic system concept of communication may be combined.  It may be of great use, when we start to analyze the techno-structures of the coming knowledge and network society and ask, where technical and human agency are situated and how it is distributed in our technologically mediated social life.



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[1] See for a broader view to define technology Mitcham (1978) and Hannay/McGinn (1981); see also Ropohl (1979: 31 f.) who restricts the definition of technology to material artefacts, their human production, and their purposeful use.

[2] Many authors have referred to this schema out of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics in different ways, e.g. more implicitly Friedrich Dessauer 1956, when he differs between “naturgegebene Bestände” (stock of nature), “Ideen” (ideas), “finale Gestaltung” (final shaping) and “Bearbeitung” (processing), more explicitly Martin Heidegger in his “Question Concerning Technology”, 1962.

[3] Carl Mitcham’s “Thinking Through Technology” (1995) has done this job in a thorough and systematic manner integrating European and American philosophies of technology.

[4] See for the term “techno-structure” Böhme 1992 and for the process of “techno-structurationRammert 1997.

[5] See for the concepts of “domestication” (Lie/Sörensen 1996) and of “cultural construction of technologies” Rammert 1996; 1998.

[6] See Heider 1926, Innis 1973, McLuhan 1964 and Luhmann 1997: 190 pp.

[7] Aristotelian thinking is one main stream; see for actual emphasis on “artificiality” and the problems to uphold the divide Simon 1981 and Bunge 1985.

[8] See for the confrontation of mechanization and organic life e.g. Giedion 1948.  There is a continuity in the left critique of capitalist mechanization from Marx´s statement about the contradiction of “live labor” and “dead labor” via the distinction of appropriate live technologies and destructive mechanical technologies (Mumford 1967) to postmodern worries about the loss of body and senses.  But there is also a continuity in the conservative critique of modern technology referring to this opposition, e.g. Jünger 1949 and the late Heidegger 1962.

[9] One consequence was the debate about the “cultural value” of technology (“Kulturwert der Technik”).  For instance, Dessauers philosophy of technology (1927) can be interpreted as an attempt to lift engineering philosophy up to the level of a fourth Kantian critique, a critique of technological making (see also Mitcham 1995: 31).

[10] See e.g. Schegloff 1972.

[11] See for technocracy as a theme in political thought Winner 1977: 135 pp.

[12] These divisions are best reflected in Jürgen Habermas’ “The Theory of Communicative Action” (1987)

[13] See for “technical mediation” the radical manifesto of Bruno Latour 1994, for the dialectics of productive forces and social life see still the “Communist Manifesto” and other writings of Karl Marx and for an enriched modern approach see Anthony Giddens (1990).

[14] See for an overview and critique of the idea of an “autonomous technology” Langdon Winner 1977.

[15] See for the term and its definition Ihde 1990: 98

[16] Someone who has found the “lost agency” and analyzes “the mixing of humans with non-humans” is Latour 1988.

[17] See especially Dewey 1916; 1925; my condensed interpretations follow largely Larry Hickman’s excellent book about John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology (1990) and Webster Hood 1982 and 1992.

[18] See for a very fine phenomenological description of the technical gesture Flusser 1991

[19] The Classical Political Economy, the Marxist historical and political economy and the neo-classical economy unanimously suppose that the technical change is ruled by objective criteria of efficiency.  See for a critique Elster 1983; the historical and sociological concepts of technical progress are deconstructed empirically by the social studies of science and technology, see Bijker/Hughes/Pinch 1987 , Dierkes/Hoffmann 1992 and Cronberg/Sörensen 1995.

[20] See for the arts Groys 1992 and for technology in the archive Groys 1997.  The idea of the “archive” is developed in Foucault 1973 and Derrida 1995.

[21] This paradox is the subject of Richard Wagner’s opera “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”.

[22] The state-of-the-art is also defined during judicial procedures at law courts, e.g. concerning surgery techniques, emission reduction etc.

[23] See e.g. Karl Popper’s three worlds (1972)

[24] With this notion I refer to similar concepts of habitus-formation (Gehlen 1980, Berger/Luckmann 1967) and to the concept of routine action (Giddens 1984)

[25] See for this typology Tushman/Rosenkopf 1992.  Finally I follow the broader concept of technological systems that includes the human operators and the symbolic artifacts (see Hughes 1987 and Perrow 1984).  But my analytical concept differs from their concepts insofar as I emphasize the media that make differences.

[26] See for a tripartite concept of meaning which differs between signs, interpretants and objects the works of Peirce.  See for an interpretation from the perspective of social pragmatism Wiley 1994.

[27] See the works of the inventor of the “universal” and “intelligent” machine (Turing 1937; 1950) and for the relations between machine-like human actions and computable operations see Collins 1990.

[28] See Bettina Heintz (1993: 234 pp.) who stresses the importance of algorithmization for a social theory of technology.

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